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Should Everyone Go to College?

Should Everyone Go to College?

The call for college to be made “free” to all who want it rests on a number of assumptions, most of them self-serving, some of them well-founded, and at least one that goes to the heart of our cultural, political, and economic ills as a nation. The most important self-serving assumption is that education, like any other good, can be provided free of charge. “Free” college simply means taxpayer-funded college, which means forcing people who work to pay for those seeking what for present purposes we may charitably grant are the goods of intellectual growth and career advancement. A nation (or, more properly, a state within a federal republic) may wish to subsidize education. But that is a policy determination that should include calculations of costs as well as benefits, and for the community as a whole as well as individuals who may (or may not) benefit from college attendance.

There also is one important well-founded assumption underlying demands for increased government subsidies for education. College clearly costs far more than it should. The problem with this assumption is that, while it is factually correct, it does not provide rational support for increasing government subsidies. Anyone with even a modicum of common sense or education in economics should know that the way to lower prices is to increase competition, not subsidies. College costs far too much because the government keeps writing blank checks to institutions supposedly providing education, but in fact in almost all instances providing a “college experience.” Costs continue to rise because people continue to pay the inflated price, even for an experience dominated by ideological indoctrination and supporting a bloated, self-serving bureaucracy devoted to its own well-being and various causes cooked up by political extremists and consultants. The way to make college more affordable is not to have the government write yet more checks to irresponsible educrats; it is to break up the current educational monopoly established and enforced by interlocking elites in government and among accreditors and college administrators.

Now we come to the core assumption underlying the demand for free college, namely, that most Americans should be going to college. To deny the validity of this assumption is to bring down upon oneself the angry charge of elitism. But it is not difficult to see that quite the opposite is the case. The demand for free college presumes that no sane, intelligent person would choose not to go to college. Of course, there is room in this fantasy for a few savants (e.g. Steve Jobs) who choose LSD and a headlong dive into hi-tech over finishing college. But the overall view remains that no one with an IQ above room temperature would choose to work without going to college first. And along with this comes the view that anyone who cannot go to college deserves pity and government assistance, but simply lacks the capacity for dignified work, independence, and a chance for advancement.

Thus, the claim that college should be free rests on a cluster of assumptions rooted in condescending smugness. And the crass, unearned elitism underlying this view is tearing our country apart. It breeds callousness toward the trials and needs of people who work with their hands, undermines our economy, and subverts the interests of millions of Americans who are harmed by our “we all go to college” attitude toward education.

To begin with, the insistence that college be made the sole means of upward mobility has undermined our economy. Most obviously, there is a great shortage in the United States of skilled tradesmen, whether in plumbing, welding, or any number of other areas, especially as relates to construction and maintenance of our physical infrastructure. Our aging workforce in the skilled trades means increased accidents and insurance costs as less-trained workers are pushed into jobs for which they are not yet prepared, along with decreased quality in our manufactured goods and less efficiency in our economy overall. It also means that our young people increasingly are being put into low-skilled clerical and customer service jobs for which they are not well-suited but which they are told are “better” for them than jobs that allow them to work with their hands.

Thanks to a number of dedicated spokesmen, including the actor John Ratzenberger, there is some improvement in many people’s attitudes regarding vocational training. But overall the divide between “educated” and “vocational” America has become worse. Too many Americans who want to learn a trade are told, in effect, that they are failures for even considering such an option. The result for decades now has been increased stigma from self-appointed elites and increased resentment among American workers, rendering our culture less civil and transforming what should be common cultural aspirations in music, art, and other areas into status markers rejected by tradesmen and abused by college educated followers of destructive post-modern trends. We are in the midst of what has been called a “Cold Civil War” because the gulf between traditional, working Americans and cultural elites continues to grow wider, deeper, and more dangerous.

Pseudo-intellectual smugness has become central to urban culture. It certainly was central to the success of Donald Trump’s Presidential run. The message from the legacy media was clear: “Trump supporter? Well, you must be one of those knuckle-dragging, GED holding blue-collar workers! Have you stopped beating your wife?” Not surprisingly, the insults were returned in kind, and at the ballot box. But the cultural conflict that culminated in the Trump Presidency has roots that go wider and deeper than pseudo-intellectual hubris.

Many Americans have noted the increased racial tensions fostered by the toxic ideology of the Obama era. That toxic ideology, being Marxist at its root, also has spawned class tensions. For generations Americans rejected the logic of class, according to which one is born into an economic station from which one cannot escape, save through revolution. The G.I. Bill was supposed to further the American dream of social and economic advancement, lived out in our towns and cities as well as on our frontiers, by opening college to more people. Unfortunately, it was seized upon by radicals and hucksters to help build a new model, according to which advancement can only be had through attainment of the “right” educational credential.

Growth of the administrative state has not helped matters. Carpenters still can become owners of their own construction companies, for example. But they are less likely to do so, and more likely to require the assistance of multiple (properly “connected”) lawyers and accountants to deal with the government. Some might see this development as beneficial. After all, it is argued, those white-collar workers need jobs, too, and they are helping the company stay safe and honest. This logic of social democracy overlooks the need for companies to concentrate on making things. It also overlooks the deadening weight of often counterproductive regulations that confuse even very intelligent people who are not specially trained in bureaucratic arcana. Large corporations like regulations because they keep smaller companies from forming and growing. Consumers, workers, and workers seeking to become employers are better served by competition among more, smaller companies.

But what about the students? Are they not the point of education, and are they not made more educated, employable, and happy by the college experience? Generally no. Increasingly, our colleges produce spoiled children who have learned next to nothing in college except that their nation is a set of oppressive institutions, that they themselves are oppressed (by their own privilege, if nothing else) and that they should not be forced to engage in productive work for a living. And these are the lucky ones, able to attend elite institutions that can help them get that first, good job in which they may (or may not) learn something about how to act in a responsible, economically productive manner. For all too many young Americans, college is a ticket to indentured servitude. These students still learn that they are oppressed but, because they do not have special skills on graduation and because their credential is not highly valued, they find themselves working at low-level jobs that would not have required a college degree a generation or two ago. To top it all off, of course, these workers are making payments (ranging in size from that of a car to that of a mortgage) to pay down their student loans.

Universities were not founded to be vocational training centers for white-collar workers. Universities do not work well as vocational training centers for white-collar workers. Universities by their very nature (as regular readers of this on-line journal well know) are centers of higher learning, capable of introducing intelligent young people to their cultural heritage. For much of our history, Americans going into business often attended college for only a year or two, gaining that introduction, then leaving to enter the world of commerce. These students left it to those more interested in the historical, theological, and cultural grounds of their civilization to continue their studies. The drive to make college “for everyone” succeeded only in making it useful for no one. Instead, it has become an excuse to strip real learning from our secondary schools, giving intelligent young people next to nothing for their intellect and spirit; the thinking is that non-instrumental learning is what college is for, and that only the uncouth would forego that broadening experience.

Excessive trust in the ability of institutions to prepare us for life has meant, in effect, leaving our children to hide from life in the cruel hothouse of ideological victimology that is the modern university. A compassionate society should reject this model of education. True educational reform must re-establish the secondary school as a place for broad learning, vocational training as a highly respected route to respectable work, and college as a place for higher learning. None of this can be accomplished so long as we treat education as a “right” instead of something that must be worked for by students, teachers, and a society dedicated to its own survival and well-being.

This article was originally republished at The Imaginative Conservative.

Image credit: RawPixel, CC0 1.0



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